The 99 Dollar Laptop and the Impact of Technology on Poverty Reduction and Global Markets

Several years back, Nick Negroponte (of One Laptop per Child), began his quest to develop a laptop that was affordable for distribution to children in developing nations and which could use local wireless networking. While the program had it’s ups and downs, it did produce a positive result and assisted in helping many school children to have access to computers that were interconnected. What’s more important is that, in targeting a $100 laptop, he and other like him, set a benchmark for all laptop makers, who at very least, had to sit up and take notice. Bill Gates and others in the hardware and software industry at the time understandably were critical of the idea. They may not have believed he would reach this target, but they could be certain that he would try and this meant that the approach to driving revenues from software and hardware would need to evolve from a high cost per user to high number of users at a very low cost. And by setting this goal, a new paradigm was established for all hardware and software companies, especially those who wanted the program to succeed.

While we could have predicted the reduction in price of laptops anyway, as a result of continued exponential advances in technology, targeting $100 was, at the time, aggressive to say the least. Having said that, the only real question was “how long will it take”? At long last, several computer makers are building $100 laptops (netbooks) including Cherrypal and others albeit generally on an Android platform rather than Windows. 

After, more or less achieving the initial goals of OLPC, Negroponte is targeting a new $75 price point for OLPC based on a tough, ultra low energy, solar powered tablet computer with an 8GHz processor by 2012. Immediately critics of his goal cry foul stating the obvious, that he isn’t a technology expert and that an ultra low power 8GHz processer will likely not be available at such a low price by 2012. But they are forgetting the fact that this is a paradigm setting goal and, for Negroponte, I suspect it is more about setting the target than it is about his personal success at reaching the goal.  If anyone reaches the goal, the children and youth of the world are still the beneficiaries and Negroponte wins.

And, not to worry, at the same time Negroponte is announcing his goal, the  Indian Institute of Technology has already announced its’ intention of developing a $35 (about 1500 rupees) solar powered tablet which will be available for Indian students along with wideband networking at it’s 22000 universities. This goal is from a country with a 63% literacy rate and success in developing a $2000 car for the masses. What is beginning to emerge is radical life changing technologies that will not only revolutionize the fortunes of India, but of the rest of the world. Computing power and access to information will soon be in the hands of every child and every person who wants it and, I for one, couldn’t be happier.

What are the impacts on the world?

Access to technology has been life changing for all of us. It has made our lives easier and more interesting. It has connected us and given us collective capabilities never before possible. It has allowed the disadvantaged to access information that they might never have otherwise had and it has given a voice to everyone. It will continue to change the world that we live in in ways that we are currently unable to comprehend or imagine. Translation devices which bridge the communication gap and nano-technologies are only beginning to make their impact felt. And more technologies are distributed to developing nations, knowledge and consequently the power of knowledge will also become more available to each individual. Our collective and collaborative capacities will only continue to increase. As individuals become empowered through greater access to knowledge, the global playing field of capability will rapidly begin to level. Education will become available for virtually all those who seek it.  And once the information is available, the deployment of solutions to many of humanity’s greatest challenges is not far away. Deployment of solutions also means expansion of the global market.

What does it all mean for Global Business?

Agility is the key for tomorrow’s organizations. Recognizing that profits will continue to flow to companies that either lead in research and development, or those that excel in the mass production of newer, smaller and less expensive products that meet the needs of a global market of more than 7 billion people where most will eventually participate due the shrinking cost of being connected to the rest of the world. In countries which are working seriously towards the UN Millennium Development Goals, poverty is being reduced, global commerce is increasing and education levels are rising, at least partly due the introduction of less expensive mobile communications.

The attraction to outsourcing will continue until salaries around the world are much closer to being equivalent and that will only happen when all people globally enjoy a similar standard of living. When I used to predict this more than 15 years ago, many people I knew rejected the fairness of outsourcing, and when I told my Indian counterparts that I encouraged outsourcing and supported their efforts, it seemed at that time that equalization was at least a century away. But with continued globalization and the introduction of extremely inexpensive electronic devices, I believe these goals are now within the grasp of this generation. 

Although part of this equalization process may be as a result of stagnant North American and European economy along with stagnant salaries, the other part is through the introduction of cheap electronics and affordable communication devices which improves not only the living conditions of our developing neighbors but also our own. It continues to introduce both educational and entertainment value into our lives, improves our collective capacities and expands our collaborative initiatives. In addition, the salaries in Asian countries, especially for educated workers, continues to increase as work continues to be outsourced. Countries such as China, India, Vietnam and some of the other ASEAN nations continue to experience unprecedented growth in GDP of between 7 and 9% annually. Currency fluctuation will only stabilize when the outsourcing trend begins to wane or when the need for international currency is eventually recognized and accepted.

In the face of the expanding introduction of technologies, new power demands will arise, and we might question the efficacy of growth in the face of continued use of fossil fuels, but it will happen regardless. No one or no nation can hold back the potential of it’s people once they begin understand what is available to them. The best we can do is to continue to encourage countries, including our own, to become leaders in the research and development of clean technologies.

For now, I have incredible hope for the future of humanity. Though we can always find bad in the world, there are so many positive developments that we only need to look for them to feel optimistic. It is also true that we have many challenges to overcome but I have faith in the nobility of the human spirit and the capacity of human heart and mind to overcome these challenges. Irrespective of our current situation, the education of the minds, the development of virtues, and our growing connectedness as a human race is slowly unlocking the door to our humanity and our collective potential.

If you like these ideas of find them helpful, please share them with others by whatever means you find easiest.

All the best,
Garth Schmalenberg

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